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Interview: GIGA
By Jul 21, 2008 Community

Belgian graphic designer Mario Van der Meulen, founder of sgth designs, and Canadian architect Raefer Wallis, principal at A00, have recently dusted off a project that's been simmering on the back burner for five years. It's called GIGA and it stands for Green Ideas Green Actions. The two have collaborated on a number of projects, (perhaps most famously the new boutique hotel URBN) but GIGA is a different entity altogether. It's a website that's uniting green-minded designers with local sustainable materials. It's a three-month old "catalyst" for change...and it's not-for-profit.

SmSh: What is GIGA?

RW: Basically, what we're doing is connecting green-minded designers and architects to locally produced goods. GIGA also provides a platform to rate the products on sustainability, so that when other designers surf the site they can select the greenest products, based on recommendations by us and their peers. Over time, this system should raise the bar for local green products.

One thing people don't always think about is the entire life cycle of a given product. Say you've got a green toilet. When it's in use it's conserving water compared to your average toilet. But how much energy did it take to build this toilet? And will disposal of the toilet damage the environment at the end of its life cycle? These are questions GIGA asks and would like to make its users ask.

SmSh: Can we talk about the actual GIGA website? It's seriously one of the coolest sites I've ever seen.

RW: That's all Mario's doing.

MVdM Ah...the cool factor. Well, the floating bubbles on the site are flash-based, but it's come to our attention that some people are just playing with the bubbles and never accessing the content. I'm working on taking the next version out of flash to make it more user-friendly.

We have a platform called "GIGApedia," which lists tons of green terms and allows users to expand on the definition of these terms. But some of this great info is being ignored because the site is too trippy.

RW: The other challenge with the website is making the next version bilingual. This version is only in English. The second version will definitely be in Chinese, which means creating Chinese editorial content, and translating English words many of which do not have Chinese equivalents.

SmSh: Like what?

GIGA: Formaldehyde. Our translators came up with about three different ways to translate that word.

SmSh: What other challenges is GIGA facing?

MVdM: Well, GIGA is a time-consuming side project. We both have our own businesses to maintain. GIGA is definitely open for volunteers - some eco-warriors who want to step up and help out. The deadline for the next version of the website is September.

SmSh: So, you've both lived in China for a number of years now. Isn't going green in this country next to impossible? It seems that there would be a lot of countries where it's simpler to get the sustainable ball rolling.

MVdM: Actually, the green future for China looks pretty good. This year in China a couple hundred thousand industrial designers will graduate. Compare that to just a few hundred in the U.S. What's more, the demand in China will drive down prices for solar panels.

SmSh: Prices for solar panels? I didn't realize Chinese builders were interested in solar panels.

MVdM: The young generation of designers in China - the ones we give lectures to at Tongji University - all these students are so in to it. Granted, this generation of designers is mostly foreign led, but green and sustainability is the number one topic on their minds. All they need is a little more training. It's the local Chinese who will effect change, but it's exciting for us to see our bit of influence.

SmSh: What else makes you hopeful about GIGA?

RW: In addition to the feel-good factor? We're seeing really positive responses and mostly in recent months. In the initial five years we found 50 local green materials. In the past couple months we've found about 25.

MVdM: Or they found us.

RW: Right. The very real possibility of making an impact in China is what's so exciting. That's why a lot of people believe so much in this country - it's why we're still here. Why would I be here instead of Canada if I didn't think I could have some influence?

SmSh: I'm still not completely convinced. China is so polluted. Every time I fly in here all I see is pink smog. Where is the hope?

RW: Actually, China's potential is because of the government. If the government decides to go green, China will go green. Look at this situation with the plastic bags. That came out of nowhere. And guess what, if you have a problem with no plastic bags, go talk to the wall. It's mind blowing. In North America the lobbying you would have to go through to get rid of plastic bags.

MVdM: This is exactly why I don't get when people around here say there is nothing we can do. In many ways change is easier in China.

RW: Initially, you do have to lower the bar. If you decide you need a perfect green project tomorrow, you create an impossible situation. But when you give designers options to use greener materials and improve projects through small steps there can be real progress.

MVdM: Still, the cynical mentality is really pervasive here. Everybody arrives in China with high hopes. They want to go green, but they don't know where to turn. It's like running when you haven't learned to walk ... it's really hard to stay in a straight line. The 2010 circus (Shanghai Expo) is already a high-pressure situation. We know that every building being done for the Expo has to be green but the regulations change so rapidly it's tough to keep up. Especially if you're operating out of another country.

RW: There's a lot to do.

MVdM: It will be a green summer.

MVdM: The great thing is we're all very gung-ho. Usually Shanghai is filled with people who have the talent and ambition but get disillusioned within a couple weeks, months at most. For GIGA it's quite the opposite, we feel that we're not going fast enough and that's great. It's good to have a product that people are waiting for and want to hear about.

RW: Most of it is an attitude, just the attitude you have as a designer.

MVdM: God. More work.

GIGA is a not-for-profit catalyst designed to unite designers and architects working in China with locally produced, sustainable materials.
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